Some Christians believe that Christians should not observe Christmas. Some object to the commercialism of the holiday; others object to its origins. In order to understand this subject, it is helpful to trace some of the history of Christmas avoidance, particularly its roots in Puritanism.
The Puritans believed that the first-century church modeled a Christianity that modern Christians should copy. They attempted to base their faith and practice solely on the New Testament, and their position on Christmas reflected their commitment to practice a pure, scriptural form of Christianity. Puritans argued that God reserved to himself the determination of all proper forms of worship, and that he disapproved of any human innovations – even innovations that celebrated the great events of salvation.
The name Christmas also alienated many Puritans. Christmas meant “the mass of Christ.” The mass was despised as a Roman Catholic institution that undermined the Protestant concept of Christ, who offered himself once for all. The Puritans’ passionate avoidance of any practice that was associated with papal Rome caused them to overlook the fact that in many countries the name for the day had nothing to do with the Catholic mass, but focused instead on Jesus’ birth. The mass did not evolve into the form abhorred by Protestants until long after Christmas was widely observed. The two customs had separate, though interconnected, histories.
As ardent Protestants, Puritans identified the embracing of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 300s as the starting point of the degeneration and corruption of the church. They believed the corruption of the church was brought on by the interweaving of the church with the pagan Roman state. To Puritans, Christmas was impure because it entered the Roman Church sometime in this period. No one knows the exact year or under what circumstances Roman Christians began to celebrate the birth of their Lord, but by the mid-300s, the practice was well established.
No evidence exists that the Christian leaders who began this practice consciously wanted to compromise with paganism. They may simply have wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus. However, modern scholars generally agree that the date they chose for Christmas was influenced by a pagan celebration on or about that same date honoring the “Invincible Sun.” Consequently, some customs unrelated to the birth of Jesus that commonly characterize modern Christmas celebrations were also present in pre-Christian pagan celebrations. This religiously blended character of most forms of Christmas celebration was enough for Puritans to avoid the holiday as a compromise with the pure exercise of Christian faith.
The New England culture was permeated with Puritan values. As late as 1847, no college in New England had a Christmas holiday. The fact that anti-Christmas sentiment exists among some groups originating in New England should not be surprising. However, there are today no churches that call themselves Puritans. Yet their theological descendants – Presbyterians, Congregationalists and many Baptists – remain. Gone, except among their most conservative offspring, is any concern about Christmas.
The central issue regarding Christmas observance is this: How much freedom do Christians have in the new covenant, either individually or as a church, to express their faith, worship and thanks toward Christ in forms not found in the Bible? Are Christians ever free to innovate in worship? May church leaders establish special days to celebrate the great acts of salvation?
Devout Christians sometimes confuse ancient forms with modern substance. “Once pagan, always pagan” is the way some people reason. They may admit the transforming power of Christ for people, but deny it for customs and traditions. Yet many of the practices God approved for ancient Israel had previously existed in paganism. Temples, priests, harvest festivals, music in worship, circumcision and tithing all had ancient pagan counterparts. God transformed these customs into a form of worship devoted to him. Even the sun, universally worshipped as a god by pagan cultures, God used to symbolize an aspect of the Christ (Malachi 4:2).
Jesus taught, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24). Too often, Puritan criticism of Christmas was based on outward appearances and a strong anti-Catholic perspective.
When Israel added Hanukkah and Purim to its religious calendar – events that celebrated God’s saving acts in Jewish history – these were acceptable to God. So, too, was the addition of the synagogue itself and its traditions, although they were not in Scripture. Examples such as these have led many Christians to conclude that the church also has the freedom to add to its calendar festivals that celebrate God’s intervention in human affairs, such as the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus.
Unless we are to conclude that celebrating Christ’s arrival as God in the flesh is a bad thing, its celebration on what was once a pagan holiday is irrelevant. Christians who keep Christmas are not pagans. They do not worship nor regard pagan gods. They honor Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
It is true that certain customs attached to December 25 are practiced in a pagan spirit by many people. But a truly Christian observance of Christmas does not include drunkenness, fornication, carousing or any other conduct unworthy of saints.
It is not a sin to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. After all, his entrance into the world was a cause of great rejoicing and celebration, because it made possible human reconciliation to God. At his birth people who loved God rejoiced in praise, and even the angels sang for joy (Luke 1:46–2:38).
Love motivates many Christians to celebrate Christmas. They love their Savior and they love their families. Christmas provides an opportunity for them to express love for both. To harshly judge those who choose to practice their faith in this spirit of devotion conflicts with many New Testament principles.
No one knows the exact date of Jesus’ birth. But this lack of knowledge does not diminish the value of celebrating his birth, any more than not knowing when Christ will return diminishes the value of celebrating his return. The fact that non-Christians or even some Christians celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday or in a profane way is not a reason to avoid Christmas — any holiday can be misused. The problem is not the date, but the behavior.
We encourage people to observe Christmas as a celebration of a very important event in our salvation: the birth of Jesus Christ. We encourage them to celebrate it as a religious holiday, not a commercialized one. Christ should be the center of the celebration. Some may choose not to celebrate, and we hope that Christians who celebrate Christmas and those who do not are both seeking to honor Jesus Christ (Romans 14:5-6).